Solitary, Silent Christianity – It’s a Thing

Do you know someone who says, “my Sunday worship service is time on the lake,” or “I spend time with God hiking the Smokies”? Maybe you feel this way yourself?

With church attendance continuing to drop and as more and more Americans classify themselves as “none” or “done” with religion, it’s time to acknowledge that there’s more than one way to practice Christianity than to go to church on Sunday morning.

Those who practice their faith in the privacy of their own homes, out in the garden, up in the mountains, or sitting in a boat in the middle of a quiet lake are just as Christian as those who show up to sit in a pew every Sunday morning. In fact, during the early years of Christianity, those who took their faith the most seriously fled the noise and drama of communities and went out into the most remote places they could find to be alone and silent with God.

We’re told time and time again that Christianity “must” be practiced within a community. But running counter to the story of Christianity in community is the story of a quieter, more meditative Christianity practiced far from the maddening crowds, far from any institutional requirements or expectations, far from any sort of so-called human authority or hierarchy.  This was the story of those who sought God in the lonely solitude of the deserts, the forests, the caves, and in far-flung, off-the-beaten-path places.  This quieter story was lived out by holy men and women we now call “saints,” by monks and nuns, and later by simple pioneers and settlers who without fuss incorporated faith into their daily agricultural chores. Early Christian saints sought out the wild, the untamed, and the deserted as they sought God and deepened their own spiritual lives.

The “Desert Fathers and Mothers” – men and women who moved out to far flung places in the deserts of the Middle East – sought a heightened spirituality, a life lived close to God.  They craved the quiet, the solitude, and the serenity of life in the wilderness, away from the daily dramas of community life.  Perhaps they craved, too, a little danger as well.  The thrill and confidence of surviving an unforgiving environment, wild animals, and a focus on the bare necessities of life likely gave them perspective, heightened awareness of their surroundings, clearer thinking, and time to wrestle down any emotional demons they had carried with them into the desert.

Like any wilderness experience in both ancient and contemporary times, the challenge of surviving in the desert toughened up these men and women, burning away all selfishness, hedonistic desires, greed for material goods, and anger.  One “desert father,” Joseph of Panephysis, was said to have advised a young disciple that the point of this tough-love spirituality was to become “all flame.”  Perhaps that’s what modern people who are “done” with church seek as well – a purer, more authentic spiritual experience than sitting on a pew in a stuffy building.

So the next time you look askance at someone foregoing a church service to spend the day in the garden, on the lake, or off in the mountains, it’s okay. So did a lot of Christians we now call Saints.

Several paragraphs of this blog post are excerpted from Considering Birds & Lilies: Finding Peace & Harmony With the Everyday World Around Us by Cynthia Coe, available in e-book and paperback editions on Amazon.com.

Wilderness as the Forgotten Place of Spirituality

The idea of wilderness as a place of deep spirituality is not new at all.  If we delve into Old and New Testament roots of spirituality in the wilderness, we see that many – if not all – of the major figures in the Bible sought quiet time in the wilderness to confront, deepen, or connect with their own spirituality.

What changed?  Spirituality – as part of the religious life – became institutionalized.  As Christianity became legal in the Roman Empire, it moved into closed spaces and became subject to rules, presided over by priests and organized into a formal religion.  For Western European and American Christians, spirituality became a boxed-in, regulated practice virtually divorced from its early connection with the wilderness.  Even in the late twentieth century, prayer was generally something you did in the church building or at the dinner table or before you tucked yourself or your children into bed.  For most Christians, the rich tradition of spirituality in the wilderness was forgotten.

But life changed around the turn of the twentieth century.  Cities and villages had always existed, but in the mid-twentieth century, people in Western Europe and the Americas began a long and civilization-changing migration from farm to town.  They began working in office buildings and living in apartment buildings, suburban home developments, and other medium to high density venues.  The farm was left behind, and so was almost all connection to the natural world.  The “outdoors,” for most people, became a city park or a back yard.  If you want to connect with the natural world, you have to make an effort.

The connection between the wilderness and spirituality has never been more needed or well-suited for humans than any time since the ancient world. As church participation and attendance continues to plummet, we might appreciate that time in the wilderness is a time-honored spiritual practice. If a majority of Americans do not darken the doors of churches any longer, it may because they have chosen quiet, soul-nourishing spiritual experiences that are just as much a part of Christianity as a structured liturgy led in a boxed-in building.

This blog post is an excerpt from Considering Birds & Lilies: Finding Peace & Harmony With the Everyday World Around Us by Cynthia Coe, available in both e-book and paperback editions at Amazon.com.

When Church Becomes Contentious

Churches, we want to believe, are happy, fuzzy places where everyone is loved and valued.  That’s what we preach and teach.  That’s what most of us expect from the church as well.  But sometimes, churches become very contentious places.  When that happens, it’s hard to focus on the church’s basic missions of ministry and spiritual growth.  Often, even the most active church members end up dropping out – feeling betrayed, hurt, and even demeaned.

When I was a teenager, my family attended a Methodist church that became a battlefield.  A small group of people tried to run off a much loved pastor, then another group tried to run off a much loved music director.  My father was chairman of the “hiring and firing committee,” and our phone often rung off the wall with vitriolic complaints against church staff.  The experience marred my fledgling spirituality for years, and for a long time, I was too scarred from the experience to attend any church at all.

When church communities become contentious, everyone suffers.  Even those not in the line of fire (like teenage girls with no dog in the hunt) end up disillusioned, angry, and suffering from at least some form of grief resulting from the experience.  Those directly involved surely suffer devastating emotional blows, and people who tend to them or find themselves cleaning up the emotional and spiritual fallout often end up depressed, angry, or burned out as well.   Membership and attendance usually drops like a brick.  Worthwhile ministries are neglected or lose funding and support.  Everyone loses, including those to whom the church hoped to help.

In my humble opinion, the source of my much contentiousness in church communities is the attempt by a few individuals to exert their power and will over others, with no regard to the feelings, opinions, or worth of others in the communities.  These individuals become convinced that they are right (about whatever the issue happens to be), and no other opinion will be tolerated or even heard.  Those with other opinions find themselves ignored and marginalized at best, insulted and kicked out of the church community at worst.

We all know this is not what the Gospel is all about.  This is not at all what church communities should be, no matter what your theology might be.  And attempts by sinful church leaders to establish their own little fiefdoms are antithetical to everything Jesus preached and taught.

If you find yourself the victim of church contentiousness, it’s hard to know where to turn.  Some of us “take a break” from church and leave for a long or short time until we feel healed and ready to try participation in church community again.  Some of us find sources of spiritual growth on our own or commune with the trees, birds, and other nature wonders.  (Birds and squirrels generally don’t argue with you, which is comforting to those of us burned by church feuds.)

If you find yourself wanting to create a church community in your own image, please remember that this is not what church is about.  It’s about, in fact, surrendering your will to God and keeping the needs of others first and foremost on the agenda.  Everybody really does matter, and everybody’s opinions really do matter.  The church includes you, those you don’t particularly like, and even those people you really can’t stand.

And if you find yourself the victim of such contentiousness, please remember that healing can take place.  It may take a long time, but redemption and resurrection are also what the church is all about, too.

Cynthia Coe is the author of Considering Birds & Lilies: Finding Peace & Harmony With the Everyday World Around Us and the novels Ginger’s Reckoning and Runaway Kitty

What’s A Prayer Shawl? (And Do You Have to Literally Pray Over Each Stitch to Make One?)

One of my favorite spiritual practices is to knit prayer shawls.  I love to sit quietly and not think, letting my mind rest while I simply make loop after loop with my hands and two bamboo sticks.  When I donate my work to my local church, I feel something like a sense of relief.  The thoughts and concerns that worked themselves out during the knitting of a large project come to an end, given over to a higher purpose. 

I have been known to sit and knit during church services.  I knit in the early morning silence of my meditation and prayer time.  But I also knit while watching TV with my family, in the school pick-up line, and while waiting for doctor appointments.  So I’ve wondered, what exactly makes a knitting project a “prayer shawl”?

For me, it’s all about intent.  Some knitting projects are for specific people for specific purposes – a hat for my husband, a winter scarf for my son, a tote bag for my daughter, a sweater for myself.  But for me, prayer shawls are for someone I likely will never know or meet.

In donating a prayer shawl, I’m giving up to God an investment of my time – usually several weeks’ worth of knitting on a daily basis.  I use soft yarns I hope will provide comfort to someone going through a hard time.  Sometimes I choose peaceful, calming colors for my prayer shawls.  Other times, I choose cheerful, peppy colors I hope will provide a cheerful, upbeat presence in someone’s life.  Sometimes I have in mind a female recipient and knit in pinks and reds and pastels.  Other times, I have a male recipient in mind and knit a prayer shawl a guy wouldn’t mind draped over a favorite chair.  I’ve knitted prayer shawls large enough to serve as a blanket on a nursing home bed.  Others are triangular and meant to wrap around someone’s shoulders.

In any case, the purpose of the project is to share love, comfort, and peace with someone in need.  Occasionally, I know someone who has had surgery, has cancer, or is at the end of life.  When I knit these shawls, I very intentionally think about the person for whom I’m knitting and for their struggles.  But usually, I don’t know where my prayer shawl will end up.  And that’s part of the spirituality of the task – putting forth your best efforts, sharing a gift of love, and trusting in the work of the Holy Spirit to get your work where it needs to go. 

So while knitting a prayer shawl is a form of meditation at many points in the making of it, it’s more about the general intention of the whole project.  It’s about a gift of my own peacefulness, sending the finished project out into the world to serve as a visible, tangible reminder of the peace, love, and comfort that can be found in Christian fellowship – even if I never meet the person I find myself connected to with my gift. 

Cynthia Coe is the author of two novels and “Considering Birds & Lilies: Finding Peace & Harmony with the Everyday World Around Us.”  She is currently at work on a series of short stories about prayer shawls and those who knit or receive them. 

Recommended Reading:

Peggy Rosenthal, Knit One, Purl a Prayer: A Spirituality of Knitting (An excellent, succinct little book that covers lots of topics related to knitting-as-prayer)

Clara Parkes, The Yarn Whisperer: My Unexpected Life in Knitting (Great light reading, a nice memoir that pleasantly meanders along at a calm pace)

 

When Life Becomes Overwhelming: a DIY Resilience Toolkit

Between a hurricane hitting a major US city, North Korea firing off missiles, and widespread political turmoil, stress levels are up.  Sometimes it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and powerless to do anything about the numerous disasters, breaking news headlines, and personal problems that constantly bombard us.

We need resilience – the ability to suck it up and move on (or at least find a sense of peace among the turmoil), and like anything else worth having, finding resilience might take a little work.  But even those of us prone to anxiety can come up with a “toolkit” of go-to techniques and practices to find calm in the storm.

Here is my own Resilience Toolkit.  Even on relatively calm days, doing just one or two of these activities can help to clear your mind and be ready to deal with unexpected sources of stress.  On days when you know you’re about to run head-on to numerous sources of stress, you might do several of these activities (as time allows; even a few minutes helps).

·         Turn off the television and put down your phone.  It’s okay to take a break from the news, and chances are, you can’t do anything about most of the problems you see on TV.

·         Read something dealing with a lightweight subject that doesn’t push any of your buttons.  Personally, I prefer travel books – they take you out of your own messed up world and transport you to someplace interesting and new where you have no dog in the hunt.

·         Quiet crafting – knitting, woodworking, drawing, cooking, gardening, whatever floats your boat.  I find that even one or two rows of knitting calms me down (or at least gives me an excuse to take a break from the rest of the world).

·         Journaling.  Write whatever comes into your pretty little head, and feel free to vent.  You have permission to write illegibly so no one will ever be able to read your deepest vents, or you can tear up (or even burn) whatever you write afterwards.  It’s the process that makes you feel better.

·         Take a walk outside.  Being outdoors gives you an instant sense of peace and quiet.  A walk around the block or just a breath of fresh air does wonders.

·         Spend a few minutes in meditation or prayer, doing yoga, or reading a favorite inspirational book.  One of the purposes of spiritual practices is to help find a sense of peace.

Life is tough.  Some days it’s tougher than others.  Take care of yourself by spending a few minutes a day in your own little bubble of peacefulness, away from the madness of crowds and reality.

Blessings, Cindy

Cynthia Coe is the author of two novels and “Considering Birds & Lilies: Finding Peace & Harmony in the Everyday World Around Us.”